WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WDBJ7)
The noise from the postgame celebration echoed well outside Wake Forest's locker room into the adjacent space where reporters waited to talk to coach Dave Clawson and his players.
And who could blame the Demon Deacons for their exuberance? It was the first time any of the players on this roster had enjoyed the feeling of securing bowl eligibility.
Wake Forest (6-3, 3-2 ACC) took advantage of two fourth quarter interceptions thrown by Virginia's Kurt Benkert, with safety Jessie Bates returning the latter 39 yards for the winning touchdown with 6:47 remaining, as the Deacons defeated UVA 27-20 on Saturday.
The victory secured bowl eligibility for Wake Forest for the first time since 2011, when the Deacons lost to Mississippi State in the Music City Bowl.
"We've got some kids who have really busted their butts, put a lot into this program, for three, four, five years," Clawson said. "People say, 'Why do you coach?' You can ask my wife. I don't sleep. Why do you do this to yourself? The high of enjoying moments like that is why you keep going at it. There's no feeling in the world like getting to share that with your team. That's what keeps you going."
The team had its stalwart defense to thank, as the pair of fourth quarter picks directly led to 10 of Wake Forest's points. Cameron Glenn returned the first interception 41 yards to set up a short Mike Weaver field goal, which tied it at 20-all.
It took just three more plays for the Deacons' defense to generate another turnover, as Benkert was flushed from the pocket and threw a panicked pass across his body into a host of black-clad defenders. Bates secured the interception and needed only a couple of blocks to find space along the home sideline and get into the end zone.
"Sometimes you're going to get sacked," Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said. "It's sometimes better to take the sack than deliver the ball in traffic. (Benkert) was trying so hard to extend plays, and I applaud him for that. He doesn't have to do it all by himself."
The teams traded momentum through the first three quarters. Jordan Ellis' 6-yard touchdown run punctuating a 75-yard game-opening drive for Virginia.
But Wake Forest took control soon after, as quarterback John Wolford scored on a 64-yard touchdown run. A Weaver field goal and a short touchdown pass to Cam Serigne just before halftime gave the Deacons a 17-6 lead at the break.
But Virginia (2-7, 1-4) rallied in the third quarter, as Benkert threw a 2-yard scoring toss to Doni Dowling. The Cavaliers then recovered an onside kick, and later took the lead when Benkert scrambled long enough to find an open Taquan Mizzell for a 45-yard touchdown pass to make it 20-17.
"It's not always pretty. It's not how you script it," Clawson said. "But we ran for more than 200 yards, our defense played really well, and we got a fourth quarter comeback to get to six wins."
Wake Forest: The Deacons' ground game paved the way for their offensive success. Wake Forest eschewed all pretense of play-calling balance in the early stages; Wolford didn't attempt a pass in the first quarter. The Cavaliers defense simply could not stop the ground game, as Wolford combined with running backs Cade Carney and Matt Colburn for 130 rushing yards on 14 carries by the end of the quarter, including Wolford's 64-yard scoring run.
"I was feeling pretty fast," Wolford said. "I just didn't want to fumble. That was my whole thought process, so if I felt anyone get close, I was gonna go two hands (on the ball). I was able to pull away. It's always fun to get those big runs, because people don't expect it."
Virginia: The loss ensured the Cavaliers would finish with a losing record for the fifth consecutive season. Their last bowl appearance, like Wake Forest, came in 2011, when they lost to Auburn 43-24 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
I'LL TAKE THAT:
Wake Forest's defense forced three turnovers, and the Deacons scored 17 of their 27 points on the possessions which immediately followed those takeaways. It was the fourth time this season that the Deacons forced at least three turnovers. Bates' interception was his fifth of the season, good enough for second in the ACC, and his second return for a touchdown of the year.
"The difference in the game today was Wake Forest took the ball away three times, and we didn't take it away," Mendenhall said. "There might be other story lines that branch off from there, but really you can trace that to being the difference in the game."
Wake Forest: The Deacons will play their final road game of the season next Saturday when they travel to No. 5 Louisville. Wake Forest has not beaten a nationally-ranked opponent since knocking off then-No. 22 Florida State 35-30 in 2011, and it has not beaten a team ranked in the top 5 since a 1946 win at then-No. 4 Tennessee.
Virginia: The Cavaliers return to Charlottesville to host Miami next Saturday. That will be UVA's final home game before ending the season with trips to Georgia Tech and rival Virginia Tech
Wake Forest 27, Virginia 20: WF's Jessie Bates intercepts UVA's Kurt Benker and runs for a 39-yard touchdown. 6:47 left in the fourth quarter.
Wake Forest 20, Virginia 20: WF's Mike Weaver makes a 36-yard field goal. 7:51 left in the fourth quarter.
Virginia 20, Wake Forest 17: UVA's Kurt Benkert completes to Taquan Mizzell for a 45-yard touchdown. :23 left in the third quarter.
Wake Forest 17, Virginia 13: UVA's Kurt Benkert completes to Doni Dowling for a 2-yard touchdown. 9:43 left in the third quarter.
Wake Forest 17, Virginia 6: WF's John Wolford completes to Cam Serigne for a 3-yard touchdown. :23 left in the second quarter.
Wake Forest 10, Virginia 6: WF's Mike Weaver makes a 46-yard field goal. 10:41 left in the second quarter.
Wake Forest 7, Virginia 6: WF's John Wolford runs for a 64-yard touchdown. 3:38 left in the first quarter.
Virginia 6, Wake Forest 0: UVA's Jordan Ellis runs for a 6-yard touchdown. 11:31 left in the first quarter.
The University of Virginia Cavaliers have lost three straight and face the 5-3 (2-2) Wake Forest Demon Deacons Saturday.
Kickoff is at 3 p.m. in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Remember to watch for highlights at 7:30 p.m. and during Saturday Football Extra on WDBJ7 at 11:15 p.m.